A few weeks ago in our segment “Buy This, Not That,” we pitted a Mini Cooper Clubman against the venerable BMW 328i Sports Wagon. The Mini came out on top, as we declared:
This week’s head-to-head is like Rocky beating Creed in the rematch, Dempsey defeating Tunney, or Wepner knocking down Ali: We’ve got to give it to the Clubman S All4. For the price of an entry-level 328, a top-spec Clubman offers nearly as much performance, a manual transmission, a little more room inside, and manages to stand out from the growing flock of kidney-grilled cars that populate well-to-do suburbs across the country.
Of course, that was before we spent a week with a Clubman, putting it through the rigors of New York City traffic, logging hours of highway travel, and running it through some of the best driver’s roads in the Northeast.
In our comparo, we looked at the range-topping Cooper S All4 Clubman, with all-wheel drive, the bigger 189-horsepower motor, and luscious Chesterfield Leather diamond-stitched interior. But our test car was much more humble; a front-wheel drive Cooper model that was well-optioned and rang in at a reasonable $32,750. It was the type of Clubman you’re more likely to see in your neighborhood, not a show pony crammed to the gills with options. Conventional wisdom would have you believe that this lower trim would help expose the car’s flaws, maybe even change our minds about picking the Brit over the legendary German.
But you know what? We’d still probably take one over the Bimmer.
Much ado has been made over the Mini lineup’s expanding size. Yes, it’s massive compared to Alec Issigonis’s 1959 Mini, but on roads choked with tall crossovers, big sedans, and in Manhattan, a sea of taxi-spec Escalades and Suburbans, the Clubman is about as compact as you’re going to find in a wagon. It’s 14 feett long, and just 4.7 feet tall, making it about as long as a Volkswagen Beetle, and 2 inches taller than a Ford Mustang. Minis may be getting bigger, but honestly, its “big wagon” is still pretty small by 2016 standards.
And the Clubman wears the Mini design language well. Redesigned for 2015, it gained two full-size rear doors (losing the smaller rear-hinged “Clubdoors”), making rear seat access easier, and thankfully kept the distinct rear barn doors, which we’ve always loved. Its clean lines and slab-sides recall the classic ‘60s-era Mini Traveller while still looking sporty and contemporary, keeping in line with the rest of the brand’s current lineup. Our test car’s “Melting Silver Metallic” with contrasting black roof and accents added a healthy sporting and playful look, almost advertising that it’s fun to drive.
Exterior pros and cons
+ Has all the classic Mini styling cues while still looking contemporary.
+ Even in non “S” spec, still seems to scream “I’m fun to drive!”
+ It isn’t exactly flashy, but try to lose one in a parking lot. We’d bet you can’t.
– We love the rear barn doors, but they do hinder rear visibility.
– All that black trim gets mighty dirty during pollen season…
– If sporty isn’t your thing, you might want to look elsewhere.
Our test car had the base 1.5-liter turbocharged inline-three under the hood (a one-piece clam shell number, which we love) that pumps out 134 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque. While it’s a big step down on power from the aforementioned 2.0-liter turbo four, it still feels plenty lively in everyday driving, and never feels overworked in the 3,160-pound car.
But pep and slightly better gas mileage aside (25/34 in the 1.5, compared to 22/32 in the 2.0), there are some drawbacks to the smaller mill. It’s significantly buzzier than the bigger four, and a little louder at idle too. And the power divide between Clubman models is hard to ignore. With the 55 horsepower and 73 pound-foot handicap from losing a cylinder, there’s also a full two second penalty in zero to 60 times (8.9 versus 6.9 seconds), which makes a big difference in on-ramp acceleration. It’s probably plenty for most Clubman buyers, but it was hard for us knowing that all that extra power was out there.
Engine gripes notwithstanding, our Clubman was a prime example of a slow car that loved to be driven fast. The six-speed automatic thankfully wasn’t afraid to let the engine rev under hard acceleration, and Mini’s famous handling kept the car hunkered down and level in tight corners. Sport mode became our friend too, firming up the steering and adjusting the throttle. It kicks in immediately, and kept things plenty lively, especially on back roads.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ An automatic transmission that actually likes to rev, fantastic handling, and heavy, communicative steering more than make up for being down on power.
+ We loved taking it through the corners fast, and it seemed to too. We’re not sure if back seat passengers would as much…
+ Sport mode really changes the driving dynamics. We’ll never get sick of a car that announces “Let’s Motor Hard!” every time we want to go fast.
– The power difference between the three and four is hard to ignore.
– Inline threes are infamous for having more NVH than four-bangers. Mini’s 1.5-liter mill is certainly refined, but it can’t completely erase all the three’s bad habits.
– The 1.5 is likely plenty for most Clubman owners, but for us, it would be hard to live with knowing we could have had a lot more power for a few thousand more.
The Clubman has the modern Mini retro-futuristic layout, with emphasis on the center infotainment system (a nod to the center-mounted speedometer on the original cars), but inside is where traces of the brand’s BMW ownership start to show through. The clean, simple typeface on the switchgear is the same (if not incredibly similar) as the one found on current BMWs, and the red lighting on black gauges will always remind us of Bavaria before Oxford. Fit and finish is superb, and for a $32K car, it feels decidedly upscale.
But German DNA aside, the Clubman is deceptively large inside (in classic Mini tradition), and still very British. Inside the door bins, arm rests, and on the center console, there’s a subtle rubber embossed in a monochrome tartan plaid, a stylish little reminder that this car came from Old Blighty. Overall, this generation has done an admirable job of toning down the polarizing “cuteness” of earlier modern Minis, but there are a number of purely stylistic touches that we really grew to like. The big, round center screen is ringed by a light strip that changes color depending on drive mode and stereo settings. It’s a flourish that could come off as cheap or gimmicky, but the Clubman’s fit and finish works in its favor, and it’s executed in a way that’s both handsome and exciting.
There’s an interesting blend of materials and textures in the Clubman, but they all work together well. The black leather in our car was paired with chrome, body-colored inserts, and an interesting herringbone panel that spanned the dash. The seats are well-bolstered, supportive, and comfortable on long trips, and feel equal parts luxurious and sporty. It’s an interior that we really enjoyed our time in, though we found the rear seats a little cramped for anyone over six feet tall.
Interior pros and cons
+ Very British, but with a strong BMW influence.
+ Fit and finish is superb, with fantastic attention to detail.
+ 18 cubic feet in the trunk becomes 48 cubic feet with the rear seats down, giving you plenty of space for hauling.
– Stepping down into the low interior helps make it feel sporty for some (including us), but for some buyers, it may be too low.
– Rear seats are cramped for taller adults.
– We loved the customizable lighting and ring around the center console, but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
Tech and safety
With the Technology Package and Wired Package, our Mini’s suite of safety features was top notch. The big infotainment screen displayed a diagram of the car with distance of any objects updated in real time, with their shape showing up on screen. This was great for parallel parking, or for alerting you that someone’s walking their dog as you’re crawling through city traffic. The car’s warning chimes are a refreshing break from the ear-splitting beeps that most safety systems have. And the backup camera stays on for a few seconds too, which was a clever aid for pulling out of a parking spot on a city street.
The Clubman’s Mini Connected infotainment system was the weakest link, however. Controlled by a BMW-esque tracking wheel on the center console with a keypad in front of it, it could be a distraction in traffic, and took a day or so to get used to. Scrolling through individual letters and numbers every time we need to enter an address into the navigation system got tiresome quickly.
Tech and safety pros and cons
+ Big, clear infotainment screen was easy to read, and navigation system was great.
+ Suite of electronic safety features gives you a 360-degree status on the car at all times.
+ Navigation system was great, and it even factored in real-time traffic conditions.
– The Mini Connected control wheel took some getting used to, and got frustrating quickly.
– Cumbersome controls made witching between the navigation and changing radio channels difficult in traffic.
– The infotainment system was strong, but it was difficult to fully explore it with such frustrating controls.
From inner-city gridlock to wide open highways or twisty back roads, the Clubman is a fun and engaging driving partner. Put it in sport mode (which became a must for us), and the “Let’s Motor Hard!” sounded like the right suggestion no matter where we were going. The interior is comfortable and spacious, and it’s difficult to get tired in, even if you’ve been on the highway all day, or stuck in traffic. Mini has given its wagon the energy of a puppy, but the refinement to never tire you out. It may be a family car, but the Clubman offers serious fun day after day.
Wrap up and review
So we may not have loved the infotainment controls, and we missed that 189-horsepower four, but it was hard not to feel a little sad the day we had to turn our Clubman in. Mini has always offered a blend of style, performance, and luxury in a package that’s wholly unique in the auto world, and in the current Clubman, it’s matured into one of the most attractive compact family cars on the market today at any price. We loved our mid-level car, but if you want to pay a bit more for the loaded Cooper S, you’ll have a BMW-beating level of luxury for a bargain price that made us first fall in love with the car. For the price range, versatility, performance, and utility, the Clubman is a great for people with a growing family or people who want fun-to-drive hauler for errands. It’s a car that you’ll be glad to own, and that’s a feeling that will last for years.